For the second year in a row, Flagler Beach will not host its traditional July 4 parade and fireworks, the city commission decided tonight, nor will the event be postponed to Labor Day. Doing so would be too “risky,” the commission agreed with Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder, with coronavirus infections still high today and a rapidly closing window for preparations even if the pandemic were to recede dramatically by July.
Commissioners are placing their hopes on a big event and parade around Christmas, including fireworks. By then the near-totality of those who want to be vaccinated will have been vaccinated, and expectations are that the pandemic will be reduced to an occasional nuisance rather than a hindrance.
First Fridays, too, will not resume until at least after August. The commission will take up the matter of both a Christmas parade and other larger events in August.
Though it won’t be much consolation for Independence Day fans, the commission on the other hand agreed to possibly resume small events and gatherings of 100 people or less, such as Pier parties or fund-raisers, starting in late April, assuming covid infections trend down and the proportion of people who are vaccinated continues to grow robustly. The commission will make a definite decision on that on April 22, potentially making permits available starting April 26.
But there was no disagreement from the mayor and the five commissioners about going with the recommendations from Snyder and Police Chief Matt Doughney to forego the July 4 events.
Smaller events are fine, especially when conducted within recommended guidelines, Snyder said, cited the Centers for Disease Control’s latest guidance. “Large events, that’s different, especially when we have 40,000 people that come into town to see the fireworks, be here all day,” he said. “As a Flagler Beach Rotarian, for years I was involved in helping to orchestrate and implement the planning for the parade, and being here throughout the whole day. So I know what it’s like. I’m thinking of the parade where people are shoulder to shoulder, nose to nose, in close proximity, in a congested space. Well, that’s different than a smaller event. I’m thinking of the 40,000 people that here in town will watch the fireworks, which I have done numerous times. It’s a small, congested space, comparatively speaking, and there is risk to that. I know that none of us including yourselves want to put yourselves in that position, possibly causing harm or allowing it to happen. It’s risky.”
Snyder said the county is experiencing a surge of new infections, including over 300 in the last two weeks, which he attributes to the recent Bike Week. He said he hopes it’s just a “blip.” It’s possible, but not likely, to reach herd immunity with the vaccine by July 4.
For a moment Snyder seemed to offer up the possibility of a July 4 event after all. Assuming that by the end of June 200 million Americans have been vaccinated–not a wishful hope: current projections have 70 percent of Americans, or 245 million, vaccinated by June 19, according to the CDC–and the infectious or transmission rate of the coronavirus has fallen, and with it the positivity rate below 1 percent (it’s 12 percent currently in Flagler County), “and there’s hardly anyone in the hospital for covid, maybe one or two patients,” Snyder said, “then maybe we can reevaluate, lickety-split, right? and quickly get a parade organized, or even talk about the fireworks. But that is not what we’re seeing right now, with respect to what’s happening.”
Mayor Suzie Johnston quickly disabused him of that possibility. “I have planned a parade with help from Bob, it’s a lot of work to put in overnight,” she said. “It should have already been started. So postponing is definitely a wise choice” She said a parade takes a minimum of two and a half to three months’ preparation, making even a Labor Day event difficult to navigate, given current uncertainties.
Doughney, speaking of larger events, said cardboard cutouts of people were set out at the Super Bowl and at the Daytona 500. “We don’t have the opportunity to put cardboard cutouts of people for a parade over a 10 block area,” he said. “In my opinion, the parade and the fireworks are not a good idea.” But, he cautioned, “If we don’t have a parade and we don’t have fireworks for the 4th of July, that doesn’t mean that 25,000 people still won’t come up to the city of Flagler Beach, because we’re not going to have people walking down A1A in the parade. They’re still going to come. Flagler Beach is its own field of dreams.”
When Commission Chairman Eric Cooley queries the mayor and the rest of the commission about the Snyder-Doughney recommendations, he heard only support. There was brief talk of doing something on Labor Day, but not much interest in that, given the possibilities for Christmas.
The response buoyed Snyder, because when it comes to the summer’s larger events, Flagler Beach is setting a tone that other local governments can now follow without seeming to be the outliers: Palm Coast, for example, also holds a July 4 fireworks display in Central Park and is very unlikely to do so this year.
“You all are an inspiration to us,” Snyder told the commission. “I just want to thank you for your transparency and your questions and taking on a very, very important topic.” He said he and Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the department, will put together a document guiding the commission and others offering recommendations on how to put on events. “We’re going to give you a document that you can use, going forward.”
That will come in handy now that the city is also close to restarting smaller events.
“I’m not opposed to opening up those events 100 people or less,” Doughney said, though in this case, too, he had words of caution: “One of the things that really does scare me about that is, if we cap it at 100, and people put in event permits, are they going to be absolutely truthful about how many people that they’re expecting. They’re going to put in 100, and 1,000 show up.”
Snyder offered up two examples of relatively smaller events held with appropriate safety measures in the last few months locally. One was the Flagler Broadcasting-produced Rockin’ the Runways in early fall at the county airport. It was limited to 350 people. Mask wearing and social distancing was required. It was held outdoors, with the two bands that played socially distanced. Snyder also mentioned the recent resumption of calibrated events at the Flagler Auditorium, where Amelia Fulmer, the director, is choreographing a strict but friendly balance between the performing arts and safety measures. “If it’s done safely with public health measures involved, even larger a little bit larger events” can be held, Snyder said.
Commissioners had also heard from Melissa Parish, the Flagler Beach librarian, who presented a plan for reopening the library’s doors four hours a day, five days a week as a start. The library itself only closed entirely for 34 days, continuing pick-up and drop-off service since last May, but in-person browsing and use of the library has been shut-down.) Commissioners loved her plan, which emphasizes safety through strict measures, and used it as a model to explore small steps toward the resumption of smaller events, though not for another 30 days.
“Now we have a forward-looking vision, it makes sense to hold for 30 then to reevaluate with the mindset that at some point we’ll be moving forward,” Cooley said.